Along with the debates over school budgets and tax rates, some two dozen towns tackled oil companies and the global issue of climate change.
Twenty-eight towns went on record opposing the shipment of tar sands oil across Vermont. Activists argue that extracting the oil poses an unacceptable risk for the planet.
The organizers hope the non-binding resolutions will send a message to Montpelier and Washington.
Climate change activists are concerned that oil companies will use an existing pipeline that cuts across northern New England to move the oil from western Canada for export via Portland, Maine.
Nancy Smith was trying to rally support outside Montpelier’s city hall for the anti-tar sands resolution on the ballot.
"The pipeline is 60 years old," she said. "It’s not designed to transport an abrasive and highly toxic substance that could destroy it. If that stuff breaks through the pipeline and it leaks into the water system, it would be absolutely disastrous."
Because the ground has to be heated to release the oil, environmentalists say that extracting the tar sands releases three to five times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil drilling.
Andy Simon is an organizer with 350Vt.org. He said it’s important for Vermont to send a message against tar sands.
"We want to remind the lawmakers and the rule makers that it’s the voice of the people that counts," he said. "And this is a way of expressing it, here in Vermont in particular with our system of direct democracy."
The Portland pipeline cuts through 10 towns in the Northeast Kingdom. It’s now used to ship oil west, from Maine to Montreal. But Larry Wilson, the president of the pipeline corporation, told Vermont lawmakers recently that he’s aggressively looking for new business, including shipping the Canadian tar sands. He said the heavy crude does not pose a challenge for the pipeline.
None of the towns the pipeline crosses had the resolution before voters. Simon said those towns may vote next year.
"The people we talked to in those towns when we were walking along the pipeline last summer were very much interested in finding out more information about it," he said. "And it’s this spring and summer we’ll be up there providing that information… If we do this resolution again next year you can be sure that there will be resolutions in those pipeline towns."
The town meeting day votes drew the attention of officials from the Canadian consul’s office. They wrote to several Vermont selectboards to assure them the technology is safe.
The environment minister of Alberta also stopped by the Statehouse recently to talk about the benefits of tar sands.
Simon said the notice from Canada is a good sign for the anti-tar sands movement.
"They would not be down here if they were not worried about the opposition that’s growing in New England, and in Quebec, to changing the direction of this pipeline and shipping tar sands products through it," he said.
The non-binding resolution puts the town on record in opposition to transporting tar sands through the state. It also says the town should use fuel vendors who buy oil from refineries that do not use tar sands.